Popular uprisings – against the King or against social change?

If you look at two of the biggest social revolts in the Pantagenet / Tudor era, there are remarkable similarities. Both Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 and Robert Aske’s Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7 were not aimed at overthrowing the King (Henrys VI and VIII respectively) – but were aimed at restoring the social order that was the foundation of the common people’s way of life.

In the case of Cade, the rebellion focussed on restoring the order through change at the top – but not specifically at the weak and wavering King Henry VI; rather the close advisors identified as the cause of the problems (the debt from war against France and the disruption from the returning soldiers).

Equally the Pilgrimage of Grace targeted the advisors around King Henry VIII – specifically Thomas Cromwell – as the cause of the changes. Their complaint was that the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the imposition of the Protestant religion created social change that they neither wanted nor approved.

In both rebellions the leaders recognised that there was an anger driving the rebels as they sought to restore their traditional ways of life. The leaders therefore tried to maintain discipline among their men, and avoid drunkenness and looting. In this Aske was much more successful than Cade – Aske’s 35,000 men were well ordered and disciplined, whereas Cade’s 5,000 went out of control once they crossed London Bridge and got into the City.

In both rebellions, the Kings recognised that fighting back was the quickest way to a disasterous all-out civil war, so diffused the rebellions by appearing to listen to their demands and issuing pardons for the foot-soldiers. They both also appeared to pardon the leaders, allowing the whole rebellion to fizzle out, before they captured and killed the two men. Cade was killed after reisting arrest, and Aske was executed for treason.

Was either rebellion successful? It depends how you define success. Cade’s rebellion prompted further uprisings that weakened the Lancaster throne and help spark the Wars of the Roses – so ultimately leading to the rise of the two York Kings then the Tudors in 1485. The failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace allowed Henry VIII to strenghten his position and to actually increase the pace of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – helping to prompt the violent backlash of Mary’s reign.

But as movements for social change, both events demonstrated the collective power of the common people and their fierce protection of their traditional way of life. That was a lesson that successive Kings and Queens needed to learn – until Charles I, who managed to get it so monumentally wrong that he ended up losing his head.